Given the frigid weather we've had since the first of the year, it is hard to believe that before too long it will be time to start some flowers from seed.
Growing plants from even the best seed isn't easy, but following proper steps can lead to beautiful annuals and perennials for your garden.
Start with the seed package. The label will tell you when to plant and whether the seeds require light to germinate.
Almost any container with bottom drainage holes will work (foam cups, egg cartons, aluminum cans), but plastic trays and pots from garden supply centers are easier to use.
Most seeds can germinate in sterilized peat or pine-bark growing media that you can buy, or you can mix one part clean sand with two parts peat moss. Regular potting soil usually works well too, if it is of good quality.
Whatever the mix, be sure it's moist before you plant. Make small depressions for big seeds and tiny trenches for small seeds. Space them carefully. If the seeds need light to germinate, don't cover them. Just press them into the surface of the potting-mix. If they don't require light, add just enough potting mix to cover them.
Mix tiny seeds (begonias, petunias) with sand, spread them carefully with an old salt-shaker and leave them uncovered.
For annuals, start seeds four to eight weeks before the date of the average last frost (about the third week of March locally). Starting the seed too early can leave plants spindly.
You can start some perennials as early as January. You may need to start others indoors in June to transplant in early fall. Check your package label.
After planting seeds, keep the seed pots and boxes moist with regular, fine sprays of water. Place them in a greenhouse, glasshouse or a warm shaded area (I have kept them in my house). In open shaded areas, cover pots or seed boxes with clear plastic kitchen wrap to keep the soil surface from drying out. Remove the cover when seedlings emerge and increase the light as they develop. Indoors a good light source is fluorescent lighting.
Water new seedlings carefully. Small containers dry out fast. Keeping the soil soaking wet, though, will keep seedlings from growing well and may kill them. Water them gently. Don't wash the seeds out.
After the seedlings have true leaves, add a quarter- to half-strength fertilizer to the water once a week. Use complete fertilizers with nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and trace elements. Be careful; too much fertilizer will burn tender roots. Use a soluble fertilizer and follow label directions for seedlings.
Prevent seedling diseases by providing adequate space and ventilation, maintaining strict hygiene and not overwatering.
Once seeds have grown four to eight leaves, transplant indoor-grown seedlings into large pots or the garden.
Whether you sow indoors or out, you may have to thin seedlings if you planted too many. If they stay overcrowded, they'll be weak and spindly because they won't get enough light. Don't try to pull out the extra seedlings. Cut off all but the strongest at the soil level.
If cold threatens, cover seedlings at night with plastic buckets, cloth or other things that retain heat.
Consider how big your plants will grow and space them accordingly when you transplant them. You may need to stake some, such as foxglove, and any plant that starts out tall and leggy and has flowers.
Water seedlings thoroughly at transplanting. You may want to use a diluted solution of liquid plant food to water them. If you do, don't add granular fertilizer until the plants start growing strongly. Then apply one pound of nitrogen per 100 square feet of bed every two weeks.
Water daily the first week or so. Then gradually cut back to once or twice per week. By midsummer, once a week may be enough even in dry weather.
Reach Sid Mullis, the director of the University of Georgia Extension Service office for Richmond County, at (706) 821-2349 or firstname.lastname@example.org.